Russia & the Middle East
Russia Adds Troops to Syria, Opens New Air Base

In the coming days, reports from the Middle East claim, Russia is contemplating almost doubling in the near term the number of its planes committed to the fight in Syria—from 35 to more than 50. Thereafter, Moscow could increase the number to 100. To accommodate them, it will be expanding a small presence at al-Sharyat air base near Homs, which features fortified hangars capable of withstanding direct shelling, where Russian attack helicopters are already based.

Russia will deploy “an intelligence and special forces brigade and support personnel, estimated to be about 1,000 troops in total” to al-Sharyat, which will be its second major airbase in Syria, reports the Times of London, citing local sources. Russia is also reportedly planning on deploying to the theater thermobaric rockets, which are fuel-air explosive weapons designed for high-temperature explosions and more devastating blast waves.

Further reports suggest Moscow is insisting that its Iranian and Hezbollah allies commit to an offensive against the ISIS-held towns of Qaryatayn and Palmyra, both of which are located near the airbase. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that Russia had slightly ramped up its efforts against the Islamic State in recent weeks.

And finally, there are rumors that Moscow is reaching out to the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish press is full of (shakily-sourced) reports that Russians are starting to provide air support to the PYD (whether de facto due to overlapping interests, or through outright coordination). According to al-Jazeera, Putin has called on  the PYD to accept a settlement with Assad. While none of these reports should be taken as gospel, we do know that the PYD has previously sent a delegation to Moscow to try to open diplomatic relations. That some kind of negotiations are ongoing is not unlikely.

So what is going here? Vladmir Putin’s bid to keep his client, Assad, alive and gain a place at the negotiating tables as the future of Syria is working out pretty well, so it looks like he may be doubling down. Putin is a consummate opportunist. He may be trying to reach an accommodation with the Kurds that would accept Assad’s control over the part of Syria that Russia cares about—and tick off the Turks, to boot. He may also be considering boosting Russian commitment to fighting ISIS directly, rather than focusing exclusively on the rebels fighting Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

It looks like Putin’s doubling down on three fronts: militarily, by increasing his presence in Syria; politically, by increasing his potential leverage with regard to the final settlement of Syria; and on the broader international stage, by positioning himself as a greater part of the anti-ISIS fight that matters to much of the West.

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